Thursday, October 29, 2015

Radio Daze - Part Five

For the last four weeks, I’ve posted about my time working in radio. And for some reason, I have felt compelled for some damn reason to begin each post with an introduction written in 3rd person. I don’t know why but I can assure you that today, as I present the last of my Radio Daze series of posts, I will not be indulging in that silliness.

Let me make it clear: No third person narration!

Got that? 

You had a dream once, when you were young. What a great life it would be to earn your living behind a radio mike, playing music and talking to the listeners. They would listen to you, rely on you for their favorite music and important information like the time. And the current temperature.

But you came to realize that the radio life was a hardscrabble life, moving from town to town, up and down the dial. It was a hard business with few rewards and you would have to pay a price for those rewards, a lack of security, a lack of stability.

Still, you wonder perhaps that maybe, just maybe you could’ve made it work somehow. Maybe the wandering existence of a radio disc jockey would have made you a stronger person, a wiser person.

But you will never know. You let the dream go. You are David Long and this 2nd person narration is fricking irritating!

When I got out of college, I had an idea that I would get a job in radio somewhere. I didn’t think it would be too hard. The downside risk of radio (always getting fired) meant that there was an equal upside opportunity (getting hired).

I knew I would have to start at the bottom, working nights or overnights, that came with the territory. And quite frankly, that’s how I saw myself in those early days, working after the sun went down, staying up when the normal people laying down their heads to sleep. Playing music and talking to the night owls and the 3rd shift workers and the lonely people who couldn’t sleep. I definitely did not see myself as a morning guy or an afternoon guy. I didn’t want to be the guy in the spotlight; I just wanted my own little light in my own little corner.

Modest goals, I thought. I could do this.

But I couldn’t.

I wanted to stay very close to the market in and around Greensboro NC, as if I was making some grand sacrifice. It’s like you want to be on TV and you can’t get on CBS but that’s OK, you’ll settle for the CW. I don’t care if it’s the number 1 network or the last place network, there’s only so many slots open for so many shows. You’re damn lucky to get on TV if your show winds up on C-SPAN, for crying out loud. So that was my problem from the get go. I thought starting in a mid-level market was as close to the bottom I was willing to start.

It also became apparent that few people working in radio as on air announcers got to do just that. At most radio stations, most on air talent have additional behind the scenes responsibilities as well. All  I wanted to do was slink in under cover of darkness and sweet talk the lady listeners until I melted away with the dawn like some kind of Caucasian Venus Flytrap. But getting a gig like that was rare indeed.

I want to share a story of a radio job I didn’t get which probably put to rest whatever ambitions I may have had as a broadcaster. It was a job in a small community north of Greensboro called Reidsville.

Reidsville is the archetype of a Southern town, built with the sweat of farmers and the blood of factory workers. It’s a nice enough place but too much like the small town I had escaped from when I went away to college.

I was a couple of months out from college graduation and my only real radio job so far was my part time overnight gig at WMAG. I paid bills with other jobs including a part time job with a financial services company; I was doing well there and the boss man indicated he would like me to come on full time the next time he had a position open. It was good money and solid, secure job. But this is not what I went to school for. This was not what I expected to do.

Making a living in radio was just not working out; still, I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I don’t know how I found out about it but a station in Reidsville was hiring. Not that far of a drive from the Greensboro area so maybe I could get solid radio work in one place and keep my ear to ground for opportunities in the other place. So I was willing to give this a shot.

I almost missed the station when I arrived. It was not near any other businesses in Reidsville; in fact, the station bordered a cornfield. Also the radio station was inside a converted mobile home. A single wide mobile home.

Radio stations working out of manufactured housing is not that uncommon; WTAB eventually moved to a mobile home. (It was, at least, a double wide.) But this was my first encounter with this sort of thing. Perhaps I should’ve admired the gonzo nature of this operation, broadcasting out of a mobile home outside a cornfield. But I couldn’t help of thinking about the transmitter shack with the leaky roof at WTAB/WKSM. A radio station in a mobile home (and I must re-emphasize, a single wide) didn’t inspire much confidence.

We took the grand tour of the place, being careful not to walk too close to the control room when the DJ was on the mike less our creak footsteps being heard. I sat down with the program director in his “office” and we talked about what this job was all about.

The announcer job was in the morning. OK, I’m not a morning person but I can’t be too choosy, can I? I would be on the air from 6 AM to 12 Noon.

Yes, a 6 hour shift on the air. And then I would go to work at my afternoon job, making calls to local businesses to sell ad time on the station. I would probably be doing that until 6 PM.

AND…any time around all that, I would be responsible for producing commercials for the station.

This job would have me working 12 to 16 hours a day. But that wasn't really that big of a deal breaker for me. No, the problem was this whole thing was the exact opposite of what I wanted out of radio. Believe it or not, I didn't want to get into radio to talk to people. Well, not directly anyway. No, I wanted to talk into that mike to reach out to lots of people and at the same time talk to just one person, the person near their radio, alone under the florescent lights of work or alone in the darkness of their room. That was my vision. I am not nor have I ever been a salesman; selling ad time was not part of my vision. Getting up early in the morning and talking to people under the light of the sun, that was not my vision.

Of course, none of that mattered. I was clearly too young and too raw to do all they were asking. Perhaps someone else my age could've made it with that kind of a job but I wasn't that person.

But wait, there's more! After I left the job interview, I pulled out on the country road that ran by the mobile home radio station. Unfortunately, I was heading the wrong way so I had to turn around. In doing so, I wound up with the back end of my car in a ditch.

So that was a thing that happened. I was stuck, no way I was getting my car without help. A tow truck came out to get extract the car from the ditch. I can't remember how it came to be there; this was before cell phones so I know I didn't call. It's quite possible that the tow truck just happened to be driving by. Well, it was nice of him to help me out, a shining example of southern hospitality.

It cost me $20.00.


Looking at the radio landscape today, I'm glad my career path veered in another direction. I'm at the age now where a station manager would be firing me to replace me with younger, cheaper talent and my path in radio would've taken me back to Reidsville or some other station like it.

It's a different world than when I was young. I know, that's a thing old people say. Don't mock me for it, you young whippersnappers; one day you'll be saying it too. But going back to radio, the homogenization of play lists and on air talent is a depressing trend. As more and more people defer to music streaming services like Pandora, radio responds with even more repetitive song rotations, more ads and more cookie cutter on air talent. And then the powers that be in radio wonder why the steady drain of listeners continues unabated.

Recently I rediscovered college radio, a local campus station called WQFS. Boy, those kids on the air need a lot of work before they get better. But so did I in my earliest days on the air. As for the music, I like quite a bit more than I would've thought. Maybe I'm not so old after all. But like a song or not, chances are I will hear something I haven't heard before and that joy of discovery is not something to be dismissed.

And I think that is that for this series of posts on my association with radio. Thanks for indulging me on this journey.

Another new post is coming up tomorrow. Until then, remember to be good to one another.

I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You

Counting Down To Infinity